Sunday, 11 September 2016

Review The American Wife

The American Wife
by Stephen Fife and Ralph Pezzullo

Patriot Games

In recent years there's been an constant flow of TV and movie political thrillers, fuelled both by current events and the goldrush for the ultimate box set. Of course, the genre has a substantial literary ancestry: John Buchan, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene in Britain , to name but a few, and now a plethora of journalists writing novels, drawing on knowledge accumulated in news gathering.

In this case, two writers have collaborated to put a thriller on stage. Ralph Pezzullo, apparently well-placed as the son of a US diplomat who has lived through turbulent times in Vietnam, Bolivia and Nicaragua to bring inside knowledge of the way American and, effectively, often Western, foreign policy in practice works - or doesn't work, alongside Stephen Fife, American playwright and screenwriter.

In a series of staccato scenes we are led through the story of Karen Ruiz (Julie Eringer), the eponymous wife who finds her ordered life as a young Santiago (USA not Chile) mother and capable housewife thrown into freefall when her American citizen college soccer coach husband, Eduardo (Vidal Sancho) a half Moroccan former Spanish football team star player (Real Madrid and Valencia are named as the teams), suddenly goes missing.

Her search to find her husband takes her out of the mainstream and out of America, first to Afghanistan and then to Egypt. Mysterious Mark Loomis (George Taylor) who claims to be directly employed as an Associated Press journalist  acts as an arms' length fixer.

James Kemp directs at a lick on a minimal black box stage, with echoing music cutting through at the end of each scene in the manner of TV thrillers. A possible concept behind the play is half-way interesting but clumsily executed - our perspective shifts direction along with Karen's as she is thrown into a maelstrom of what may be information or, on the other hand, disinformation.

It also, we think, plays on how our sensibilities have been shaped by the political genre of filmmaking of the late twentieth century (Costa Gavras's Missing springs to mind), but now are hardened and confused by terrorist attacks close to home

However, it may seem a truism, but what may be made to work on film feels out of place on a stage. A movie or TV director, a cinematographer and film editor can thread together scenes visually, plot-wise and psychologically to carry an audience. The stage is not so forgiving when it comes to question marks about and holes in the script.

The actors try their best to give something to the flat stereotypes but this is all about plot. The smattering of real issues and events only serves to underline the banality of how the script is put together. In more skilful hands, the elements of the story might amount to an absorbing story. But this threw in the elements in a scattergun fashion with seemingly little or no research to link them in a plausiible manner.

Some of the play in its stereotyping even seems to descend to the level of sitcom in its justaposition of American officials and citizens with those in Afghanistan and Egypt.

There is at times also a strange sudden injection of artistic self-consciousness. The young daughter Taylor (Lucia Henry Peragine and Sascha Petrou alternating over the run) who wants her mother to  read her a story. The man who says he is a journalist who wants the exclusive rights. The Egyptian torturer-in-chief (Emilio Doorgasingh) who suddenly turns into part Measure For Measure's Angelo and partly a crude version of Captain Seguara in Graham Greene's "Our Man In Havana" and calls the beleaguered wife "Pretty Woman".

As an open ended virtual reality action computer game, the way the plot of The American Wife is structured - an American woman seeking her husband with false trails, revelations and accusations against her of mental illness - might work.

But as a play it grated and frustrated. On a purely practical basis, the use of TV Law and Order-type music between scenes echoed uncomfortably and ennervatingly on the sound system. There was also some problems with vocal audibility at the beginning of the play, although this improved during the performance.

There is certainly a place for cinematic-type thrillers on stage, which may even bring new audiences into theatre. This play also touches on important issues, although they felt contained and certainly not fully explored, the whole as phoney as the inflexible baby doll brought on stage as Karen and Eddy's youngest child.

Waiting for plausible twists and turns (which never came), we hung in there. Therefore we have to admit in this rather left-field way it held our attention. So we give it the very lowest end of an entirely bemused  amber light and hope little Taylor gets rather more convincing bedtime stories. 

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